News, views and commentary with an anarchist twist

Is the state of the environment a concern for working class people?

Dave (the editor)

There are some misconceptions floating around implying that working class people are not concerned about issues such as environmental degradation and climate change. What I want to do with this piece is challenge those misconceptions by outlining how environmental issues directly impact our lives and argue why we have to incorporate them into our class struggle politics.

Look at how pretty much any manufacturing town in this country has developed and you’ll see that the more affluent areas were generally elevated and situated in a way that avoided the prevailing wind that carried the muck from the factories and the mills. Meanwhile, the cramped houses of the workers were located as close as possible to workplaces that belched out smoke, fumes and dust onto their neighbourhoods. Ever since the advent of industrialisation and the mass migration of workers into the rapidly expanding manufacturing towns and cities, working class people have always been in the frontline of environmental degradation.

Even though the UK is not much of a manufacturing nation any more, there are still a fair few operations generating a lot of pollution and posing a direct risk to their workers. These tend to be bulk recycling operations involving materials from building demolition, ferrous scrap and the like. To put it bluntly, some of these recycling firms are cowboy operations that do the bare minimum necessary to look after the welfare of their workers and if they can get away with it, will flout the rules and regulations. That’s until the workers decide they’ve had enough of working conditions that pose a direct threat to their health and decide to take action. Which is exactly what a group of workers at the Orion recycling plant in East London did last year when they staged a wildcat strike: Wildcat Strike of Recycling Workers.

A bit closer to home in Tilbury, we have a situation where residents are finding their homes, gardens and cars covered in an iron oxide dust: Tilbury families need reassurances – Editors comment. There is a recycling operation located in the nearby docks, European Metal Recycling, who funnily enough, have flatly denied that the iron oxide dust has anything to do with their operation.

This letter from a Tilbury resident published in the Thurrock Gazette brings home the level of concern this dust is causing:

The dust in Tilbury is so bad now that we need to clean our house regularly!

Residents are very angry and I am angry about it too.

The biggest frustration is that we still don’t know how harmful this dust is to us.

I don’t understand why it has taken so long to get it sorted and find out what is happening, can someone tell me?

It should be the priority of all the agencies and authorities.

Some people are claiming the council could be hiding something as they are not being open about it.

We want the answers that we deserve and we want them now. I have signed the petition and agree with it and I hope it will get answers. Soon.

This issue has been ongoing for some time and doesn’t look as though it’s going to come to a resolution any time soon. But hey, it’s ‘only Tilbury’ so why would the authorities pull their finger out and eliminate the source of the pollution?!


This is the ferrous dust that’s blighting the lives of people living in Tilbury

Then there’s the pollution (and noise) that comes from excessive traffic levels. Thurrock is a major logistics hub, home to ports, docks and wharves at London Gateway, Tilbury and Purfleet plus the M25 and A13. That creates a lot of traffic. That traffic generates a lot of pollution making Thurrock a hotspot for bad air quality: Thurrock is among UK’s worst for air pollution. With the proposed Lower Thames Crossing, traffic and pollution levels look set to increase: Lower Thames Crossing decision – let battle commence! Because this is right in our backyard, the saga of the Lower Thames crossing is one we’ve been following very closely. Opposition to the crossing isn’t just coming from the usual middle class elements – there’s a lot of working class people across Thurrock who are up in arms about this.

Then there are the urban environments where the traffic is constant and just a couple of yards from your front door with constant noise and fumes. When the traffic is stationary and the engines are idling, the pollution is even worse Welcome to one of the worst examples of this we’ve seen – Brook Street in Colchester: The Brook Street Closure. What was once a quiet residential street has been turned by out of touch traffic planners from the leafy suburbs and surrounding villages into a living hell. But, it’s a working class and migrant area so in the wider scheme of life in a neo-liberal world, the health and quality of life of those living on Brook Street is way down the priority order.


This is the traffic that the residents of Brook Street in Colchester have to endure

What has been discussed so far are examples where pollution is visible and the effects are suffered on an ongoing basis. What is the attitude towards issues such as CO2 induced climate change? Is it something so large and abstract as an issue – with impacts that are not always immediately obvious – that working class people let it pass them by? Well, for those living in a flood risk area and who have been flooded out in the last few years, the impact of climate change may well be something they already have on their mind. For people living on Canvey Island, the majority of which is below sea level at high tide, the issue of climate change and rising sea levels is something that is increasingly moving to the forefront of their concerns: Residents of Canvey Island left to Face the Risks, whilst Castle Point Council, Fail to Develop an Adequate, operable Emergency Plan!

The devastating floods of 1953 that struck the east coast may for some, have receded into history. For those who live on Canvey Island or in low lying Tilbury, the floods are part of the folk memory. A memory that sparks fears when people hear reports of ice cap melt, rising sea levels and the increase in the number of times the Thames Barrier has had to be raised. The raising of the Thames Barrier used to be a rare event that would attract media attention – it’s now becoming routine: A flooded future: Essex to the world. For the thousands of us living in the low lying parts of the Thames Estuary, knowing that if urgent action isn’t taken soon to reduce CO2 levels, our homes will increasingly be under threat – that is more than enough to start concentrating our minds.


The floods that hit Canvey Island in 1953

So, just because the participants in the growing number of Extinction Rebellion actions may be predominantly middle class, it doesn’t mean to say that we as working class people aren’t concerned about environmental issues. As an aside, one factor in the lack of working class participation in Extinction Rebellion actions to date may be our less than happy experiences with the police and not being able to afford the risk of being arrested and charged! As well as the immediate and obvious impacts of environmental degradation that we experience on a daily basis, we’re also aware of the more existential issues such as climate change as well.

As we’ve outlined in this piece, environmental degradation and climate change are issues that affect us as working class people. What we need to do is to start to own the narrative of the campaigns around those issues so that it’s our voices that are being heard. We’re the ones on the frontline from traffic induced air pollution through to being housed in flood risk areas. These aren’t abstract concerns – it’s our health and lives that are being put at risk. Environmental issues are a threat to our existence and that’s why we need to fully incorporate them into our class struggle politics. Lets’s have the discussion about how we achieve that…

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